In the heat of the battle, adrenaline pumps furiously through the body, our minds racing to the next task or decision or problem. We grab food when we can, a wink of sleep too before hustling to join forces with mates who have become closer than family as we stare down the ‘enemy’.
We arrive back to our loved ones dirty, dusty, wet and weary. Words can’t accurately describe what we’ve seen and heard – you were either there or you weren’t. Experiences will be spoken of for years to come, adding to the personal libraries of war stories to be brought out around the campfire, when the new recruits pile in.
We have learnt from the past, we know to talk about things now and not bottle them up. The smart move is, long after the urgency has passed, that we take the opportunity to have a chat to friends, family, Peer Support colleagues, the Service Chaplain, or the Critical Incident Support Teams. We know to share how we feel, the strategies we will put in place to process what we saw, and we vow to support each other when things get a bit rough.
And then we go back to normal.
If there is still such a thing?
Two weeks ago, I read a Facebook post from a firefighter who spent the days of his Christmas and New Year break on a fire truck, battling to save the houses of his own community and in others. Apart from the obligatory ‘fatigue management policy’ rest days, he was on that truck doing what had to be done day in, day out. Then his leave ended and he headed back to his ‘normal’.
Back to emails from colleagues, phone messages from clients, empty paper trays in the photocopier, documents sent to the printer that never arrive, lunch taken in the humdrum of the cafeteria.
But compared to what he’d seen, what he’d done, it meant nothing. He couldn’t feel anything for the customer he was trying to support, or the boss who asked for the report, or the colleague who needed the data. He felt numb about it all.
If you’d have asked, the answer to your question would have been, “I’m fine thanks”, or perhaps it was, “I’m lucky, others are much worse off”. And both statements are true, so he isn’t lying…because he doesn’t know.
I’m calling it ‘Unconscious Anxiety’, that genuine feeling of unease but they don’t know where to place it. They can’t pinpoint why their gut is churning, but they know it doesn’t feel good. Maybe their breath catches at an odd moment, or they are mid-way though a sentence and suddenly can’t remember what they were saying or why it was important? Sometimes they may feel it building, other times it snaps out of them with the force of a lightning bolt without any warning.
It’s anxiety, it’s post-traumatic and its very real. They just don’t realise that they’re in it. It’s unconscious.
So now, leaders, it is our turn to carry the baton. We need to step up and fight the battle. As friends, family, colleague and leaders, it’s now time to watch over our most courageous and selfless and support them as they transition back to their ‘normal’.
We may not have trucks, or hoses or drip torches, but we have patience for understanding, ears for listening and arms for support. That support may be as simple as taking them out for a coffee and chatting about whatever is their foremost thoughts, giving them space to think and time to re-calibrate back to the day-to-day routines they used to know so well.
We don’t have to be chaplains, psychologists or experts at post-traumatic stress disorder. All we have to be is ourselves and to be patient.
There’s a character in a book by Nicholas Sparks, a Marine who has come back from the Gulf War. He explains to a young boy that when on patrol, it is your job to look our for the guy standing next to you. And he in turn will look out for you.
So, when the smoke dissipates, as the rain finally falls and the blackened trees begin to explode with the green sprouts of new life, it’s our turn to look out for those in our work teams who have spent their Christmas and New Year break on the fire line, in evacuation centres and on the end of emergency call lines.
For help, the Black Dog Institute of Australia has some great information on supporting people after a traumatic event. You can find them at:
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